Thursday, 16 November 2023
Science Week: Statements
I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak to the House during Science Week 2023. I thank the Business Committee for scheduling this debate. Science Week is a celebration that many of us in the House and across society are passionate about. It is a celebration that, encouragingly, is growing in stature and significance every year.
I sometimes believe that, when we talk or think about science, it is considered the preserve of a few whereas Science Week is an inclusive participatory community where different abilities, aptitudes and attitudes are facilitated in the spirit of inquisitive fun. I was pleased to announce funding from my Department of €650,000 to support the staging of 15 festivals and hundreds of events nationwide this week as part of Science Week. I thank everyone who has worked so hard to make these events possible and so successful.
At the heart of Science Week is the spirit of inclusivity. Everyone is welcome, which is what makes it a success. Questioning, suggesting, answering, opining, challenging, probing, absorbing, considering, advancing, adapting, adopting and evolving are all part of the journey researchers travel daily, and it is one we all as citizens try to join in on during Science Week. I thank the volunteers nationwide, who are central to the design, build and operation of Science Week’s diverse activities.
This year’s theme is one word: “Human”. Science Week is asking people to consider what it means to be human in today’s world and how the decisions we make today will impact humans and the world of the future. What is in store for the next generation and the generation after that? What are we leaving behind? What are we not leaving behind but should? Whether it is the climate crisis, sustainability, AI, transport, evolving urban-rural dynamics, our rivers, lakes and oceans, modern interpersonal engagements and future-proofing tomorrow insofar as we can, the list of things to consider in terms of where we are at, where we might end up and the impact of that on humans is fascinating. In many ways, these are questions we have been trying to ask since the inception of my Department in 2020 and that we all continue to ask and work on today.
It is important the conversation I am talking about be a national one. I hope it is not one we only have one week per the year and that Science Week will epitomise the need to have it throughout the calendar and spark a conversation in the home, the workplace, the school and the community about the importance of science. Science Week is that window of opportunity where I hope everyone can feel that little bit more connected to science. It is critical that people do so. The coronavirus brought science centre stage on a global scale. Citizens of the world made it their business to ask questions and learn about the whys, hows, whens and ifs of science. While Science Week is a celebration of science and those who dedicate their lives to research, it is also about those who nurture an appreciation of science, be they our teachers, volunteers or anyone who helps to demystify science.
Science Week demonstrates that you do not have to be a scientist to get science. Curiosity lives within us all, and that is a good thing. It is what pushes us forward and motivates us through life. It is the quest to unearth things. I saw that great curiosity recently when I presented the Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, curious minds awards to two local schools in my county of Wicklow. The ideas from the children and the great work by the teachers to encourage involvement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, subjects were great and encouraging to see for the future. That was replicated in many schools throughout our country. It is wonderful to see all the children who have been involved throughout the week of science. We need a science-curious and science-informed public. We need a science-passionate pipeline of talent coming through our education system and into our workplaces and across society more broadly.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the UNESCO World Science Day for Peace and Development, which took place last Monday and emphasised the need to engage the wider public in emerging scientific issues and build a link between science and society and societal needs. This is an important part of my Department and of any encouragement we can give to society to participate in the science fields and engage more to broaden our understanding of our planet and society as a whole.
Researchers across our higher education institutions are conducting critical work to tackle some of the greatest challenges facing the world today. The Government is pleased to support this community through a diverse portfolio of programmes and funding agencies. I thank all researchers for their commitment and wish them well in their future activities.
The House may remember that, in February, the Government agreed to establish new science advice structures, including a national science forum and the appointment of a chief scientific adviser. These new structures will complement and add to existing structures and develop science advice capacity across the whole of government. I am conscious of a point Deputy Naughten makes in the House about the importance of enabling advice to the Oireachtas and policymakers more broadly. That is something with which I agree. I am pleased to announce that the recruitment for a new science adviser is well under way, with an appointment likely early in the new year. This appointment will lead Ireland to be more proactive in our engagements with international science advice networks, which will be of considerable benefit to our country. I acknowledge that Deputy Naughten has shown great interest in this topic. Indeed, I am about to move on to his favourite topic.
Following Cabinet approval this week, I am happy to announce that I will now write to CERN to apply formally for Irish associate membership. I am aware that this is a development that has been eagerly awaited by our academic community for years and I thank its members for their assistance in bringing us to this milestone in Irish science and in preparing Ireland’s formal application. My Department has been working closely with CERN to expedite the application process and it is anticipated that the CERN Council may consider Ireland's application this December.
In the humble anticipation of a positive vote by the CERN Council, a positive assessment by its task force early in 2024 and allowing for our own legislative requirements, it is anticipated that Ireland's membership can commence in late 2024 with the Irish research community participating at CERN from day one of Irish membership. The expected Exchequer commitment is approximately €1.9 million per annum, for an initial period of five years. At that time, both Ireland and CERN will work together to consider the best membership options for Ireland.
Membership of CERN can be expected to bring many benefits to Ireland across research, industry, skills, science outreach and, of course, international relations. It will open doors for Ireland's researchers to participate in CERN's scientific programmes and would make Irish citizens eligible for staff positions and fellowships at CERN. With CERN membership, Irish citizens will gain access to CERN's formal training schemes. These include masters and PhD programmes, apprenticeships, a graduate engineering training scheme, internships for computer scientists and engineers, and technical training experience. These skills would be developed far beyond what is possible in Ireland and are in industry-relevant areas such as electronics, photonics, materials, energy systems and software. Membership will also allow Ireland's enterprises to compete in CERN procurement programmes. Much of CERN's instrumentation and equipment requires the development or exploitation of novel technologies, which spurs enterprise innovation. Many of these technologies have applications in other spheres such as medicine, space, energy and ICT.
Progressing Ireland’s application will involve engagement with the Cabinet, with the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform, with the Department of Foreign Affairs, with CERN and, ultimately, because it will require a resolution of this House, with Dáil Éireann. Cabinet approval has also to be obtained this week for the establishment of a national CERN co-ordination group to oversee the implementation of a strategy to ensure the best outcome for Ireland from its investment in CERN. The group will agree a set of criteria to monitor and assess the success of Ireland's participation. This group will work with existing structures in CERN towards this end. Given the strength of the Irish physics and wider research community, Ireland has every reason to be confident that it can make a significant contribution to the world-class research being undertaken at CERN and we should approach our membership with that degree of enthusiasm and confidence from day one.
This week, Science Week, I am also officially launching Quantum 2030, Ireland's first national strategy for quantum technologies. The Irish quantum community has been keenly anticipating the launch of this strategy. I had an opportunity to meet with some of that community this week. The publication of the strategy marks the adoption of its vision of Ireland as an internationally competitive hub for quantum technologies by 2030 as a whole-of-government policy goal. The first quantum revolution took place in the 20th century and resulted in technology including transistors, lasers, GPS and MRI. We are now in the early stages of a second quantum revolution. The quantum technologies now under development will provide strategic advantages in some of Ireland's foremost industry sectors including technology, pharmaceuticals, finance, industrial goods and manufacturing. With Quantum 2030, Ireland will be well positioned to make use of those advantages. The impact of quantum technologies is growing and its importance for Ireland in international competitiveness becomes more highly relevant by the day.
Billions of euros are invested by national governments, the European Commission, and corporate and private investors to gain access to an emerging market, estimated to grow to hundreds of billions of euro per annum, and to attain a strategic advantage in the applications enabled by quantum technologies. This quantum revolution is specifically relevant to Ireland. Irish researchers have recognised the potential of quantum technologies for innovation and competitiveness. Quantum computing has a long research tradition in Ireland documented by an impressive research output and international reputation to back it up. Today, Ireland has a significant level of expertise in quantum technology, with a talent pool and research portfolio relevant to the main pillars of the field. Ireland has a strategically important position in the technology sector as a competitive global hub. We appreciate the synergy between the quantum training programmes offered by industry partners and those run through our universities. Quantum computing application development activities in Ireland, both in academia and enterprise organisations, have been growing exponentially over the past three years.
We in Ireland believe that we can build on our existing successes in information and communication technologies to become a global leader in the research, development and innovation that underpins the quantum revolution and to become a hub for realising and exploiting the new opportunities in technologies, particularly quantum computing and communications. Our new strategy focuses the efforts of Ireland's quantum technologies community on areas of emerging growth where Ireland can achieve that competitive advantage. It aligns with the national vision of Ireland as an innovation-leading country where research and innovation are critical to economic growth. The strategy is designed to connect stakeholders from across the public sector, academia and industry - from multinational corporations to start-ups - to create a collaborative and generative ecosystem for quantum technologies. I am also happy to announce that the strategy is accompanied by the establishment of a new governance structure, chaired by my Department, comprising representatives from key Departments, industry and academia that will drive and oversee the implementation of the strategy.
A natural starting point for a career as a researcher is to undertake a PhD. This builds on the educational qualifications already achieved and supports PhD researchers to develop their research-specific skills. Under Impact 2030’s dedicated talent pillar, there is a clear emphasis on such students with the strategic objective of fostering a more consistent research student experience across higher education institutions, research disciplines and funders. With this in mind, last year I appointed two co-chairs, Dr. Andrea Johnson and Mr. David Cagney, to undertake an independent national review of State supports for PhD researchers, marking the first time this matter has been considered holistically in Ireland. Their first review report was published in June 2023 and included a recommendation to increase stipend levels, on which I achieved strong progress. To be clear, it said we need to get to €25,000, and that remains our aim. I am pleased that we were able to take a significant step forward, which becomes effective from January of next year and builds on previous funding increases secured. This first review report also included important analysis and findings on researcher career pathways, which, I suggest to anyone, are interesting to read and consider for many Members in this House and, indeed, for my Department. The co-chairs have now submitted their final review report and I intend to publish this shortly. My officials are preparing alongside this an action plan to implement recommendations arising from the entirety of the independent review.
I take the importance of the stipend issue. We have made progress. We need to make more. I also appreciate from my engagement with PhD researchers and from the reports and the work of the independent review that we need to do more beyond the stipend in terms of career pathways and a variety of issues. Visas and many other issues come up. We will publish the final report shortly but we will publish alongside that an action plan to show how we intend to take forward the recommendations.
From a science point of view, this has been an exciting year for my Department. It has been an exciting year for Ireland's science community with the quantum strategy, the application to join CERN, the advertisement of new scientific advisory structures with the appointment of a new Government chief scientific adviser to come early in the new year, the progress on PhD stipends with more to come, and the independent review of our PhD research ecosystem now complete.
The next big step that I intend to take is the proposed research and innovation Bill, which will be published shortly and will establish Taighde Éireann-Research Ireland as the new research and innovation funding agency for Ireland. I want to take a moment to thank my colleagues on the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science for their considered recommendations, which have informed both the drafting process and the design of the new agency. The creation of Taighde Éireann-Research Ireland as the new research and innovation funding agency is a key action in Impact 2030. The new agency will build on the recognised and important strengths of both the Irish Research Council, IRC, and Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, in driving world-class research and innovation. It will fund research and innovation excellence in all disciplines. Professor Philip Nolan was appointed as chief executive officer designate in May 2023, putting the new agency’s transitional phase into very capable hands, as would be recognised by Members across the House. There will be no shocks and no sudden immediate changes to existing programmes that are being run or, indeed, to how they are being run. No one transferring to the new agency will have any diminution of his or her terms and conditions of employment, and this is also captured in the proposed legislation that we will debate in this House shortly. The new agency will build our capacity to respond to challenges and to embrace opportunities. Researchers from all disciplines - the arts and humanities, science and technology, the social sciences, engineering and maths - will be better able to work together on both the major issues and the exciting new possibilities and grand challenges that face our society, our country and our world.
The proposed research and innovation Bill will place arts, humanities and social sciences research on a statutory footing for the first time, which is important when one talks about the incredible work done by the IRC, which does not exist on a statutory basis. The IRC was set up by ministerial letter, effectively, as a suboffice of the HEA. For the first time, we are putting arts, humanities and social sciences research on a statutory footing and ensuring parity of esteem and developing on the IRC’s critical mission of supporting researchers of all disciplines, and at all career stages. In making competitive funding awards of varying sizes and across all disciplines, the agency will significantly broaden the access of researchers in all areas to an improved range of research funding programmes. Taighde Éireann-Research Ireland will be more than the sum of its parts.
The agency is going to deliver enhanced added value as part of the wider research and innovation system, building the capacity we need for research and innovation excellence into the future.
I thank Dáil Éireann for hosting and agreeing to these statements today, in the 28th year of Science Week. The world needs science now, more than ever. As Science Week has evolved from a relatively small initiative spearheaded by a relatively small number of individuals to become a movement with a dynamic presence in every county in Ireland, we endeavour also to achieve this with our enthusiasm and commitment to building on achievements to date and continuing to grow our commitment to this area. As we go forward into 2024, our research and innovation Bill will be in place, the new agency, Research Ireland, will be established, the new Government scientific advisor will be in place and we will be on the brink of joining CERN. We are working hard to place science at the heart of Government and the work of the Oireachtas and policy development in Ireland.
I thank everyone involved in Science Week, in whatever capacity, for their valuable contribution in instilling an appreciation of science, research and exploration among all people, and particularly our young people. I thank Oireachtas Members for their support of science in all its forms, be it as an employer, a multisectoral supplier or an innovator delivering groundbreaking products and processes in every facet of our lives. Underpinning both our society and economy, we need to make every effort to ensure that science's critical status is maintained.
In closing, I think there is a great onus on us, when we talk about the importance of science as an Oireachtas, when it comes to the development of policy, to follow always the science and embed evidence-based policymaking in all that we do here as a Parliament. I really hope the new structures that we put in place will further empower legislators in these Houses in the work that they need to do, and we all need to do, in facing some of the great challenges that our country and our world face.
Today, we are celebrating Science Week. We are honouring the achievements of science and we are recognising the success of science and the progress that has been brought about by scientific research. I recognise that the Minister mentioned that we need to do everything we can to make sure that a career in science is available to everybody. This week, the education committee went on a visit to the Holy Family School for the Deaf in Cabra. It was a fantastic visit. We visited both the primary and secondary schools. In the primary school, we heard that first class were doing experiments every day of that week and that all the classes were looking at really celebrating science and participating in it . When we are looking at that, we need to make sure that we are doing everything that we can and to value those who are working in science. The Minister mentioned PhD researchers who are making invaluable scientific discoveries. We need to do everything we can for them and make sure we are valuing them as fairly as possible. As we know, those who are in their early careers as academics often have to endure quite precarious conditions in terms of their employment in third level institutions. We need to do everything that we can to keep people within research-based careers.
Next week, in the audiovisual room, I will be hosting the launch of the recent report of the Irish Federation of University Teachers on precariousness in academia. To be frank, while we celebrate science, all the achievements and the fact that so many people are participating in Science Week, which is really important, we also need to make sure that we are aware of the difficulties and the issues, because the report does make for sober reading. We cannot have a situation whereby we value the output of scientific research without recognising the essential inputs which make scientific research possible.
I have spoken to many students who are just beginning to pursue their scientific degrees. As we know, many students have had to go outside of Ireland because perhaps courses are not available. They might have to go to different places in the EU. There is also the issue of accommodation costs. The fees may be even higher abroad, but because the accommodation costs are significantly lower the net cost to the students is lower. I note that the Minister made a very significant announcement post budget in relation to accommodation to the effect that there is significant additional funding that could be made available for technological universities and other traditional universities, which will come from the European Investment Bank and will be matched by the Housing Finance Agency. As the Minister is aware, the technological universities have the difficulty and the issue around being able to borrow. It is something that needs to be resolved. Perhaps today the Minister might explain in greater detail that particular announcement. Of course, as with all announcements, the devil is in the detail. It is important to have that level of detail. We know that many of our universities already have significant borrowings, so it will be interesting to see how much appetite they have in relation to taking on more. I am conscious that I am constantly mentioning the issue of affordability as well. If we want to make this area better and we want as many science students to be able to stay here rather than having to go abroad, it will be essential that there is that affordability element.
In relation to PhD researchers, we have had the publication of the independent report on stipends, which recommended an increase to €25,000. I am aware that there is significant variation in stipend rates across institutions. There are different categories of stipends, whether they are funded by Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council, its succeeding body or the institutions themselves. We will really need to look at the role the Minister is playing in relation to helping to implement the report's key recommendation on that increase to €25,000. Another issue that is impacting on PhD researchers is that they are currently excluded from the student rent tax credit. I do not fully understand how that has been able to happen. I have raised the issue directly with the Minister for Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform. It seems to me that this would have been something that would have been good to tease out or figure out in the most recent Finance Bill. We know that PhD students are struggling. The Postgraduate Workers' Organisation of Ireland has been very clear with us in relation to its own demand and also the fact that many PhD researchers are struggling. There is the issue with taxation and as a result of that, they cannot access the rent tax credit. It is something that I think really does need to be looked at because it is an issue that has been raised with me. It is a missed opportunity and something that we can hopefully look at going forward.
The other issue is the fact that many lecturers are struggling with the precarity of contracts. Many lecturers are on rolling contracts from year to year. It is an historic issue that has been going on for a long period of time. We know that almost one third, or 32%, are employed on fixed-term or hourly-paid casual contracts, academics are working, on average, 11 hours per week over their normal hours without additional compensation, and 61% of causal hourly-paid employees do not get paid for time between terms. Many workers on precarious employment contracts report elevated levels of stress and have considered actually leaving academia. I spoke to one man who works in the area of microelectronics. He trains people in very complicated areas related to the production of microchips and processors. He is extremely passionate about his job and absolutely loves research and teaching, but the fact that he cannot get permanency impacts on his life. Planning things like getting a mortgage and starting a family have proven very difficult. As a result, he is thinking that at some point he may have to make the decision to leave. If that were to happen, we would lose a knowledge base which can be very hard to replace.
I want to touch on some of the other constraints in relation to research in our universities, some of which are from the last crash. For example, the issue of the employment control framework is one that is continuously being raised with me. Ireland has one of the highest ratios of students to staff in the OECD, yet thousands of employees in the sector are involuntarily and inappropriately on fixed-term, term-time, part-time, casual, if-and-when kind of contracts.
Of course, universities' level of autonomy should extend to deciding what staff they need rather than having to consistently use all these creative contractual arrangements to get around this.
Then there is the issue of the funding gap. I acknowledge that progress was made in this year's and last year's budgets. However, at a time when we are running surpluses and setting up new sovereign funds, we need to make sure we are closing this gap sooner rather than later. Since I mentioned the issue of the new funds, we should also look at the National Training Fund in the absence of any fund for university research equipment and consumables. It seems clear to me that the National Training Fund as currently constituted is not fit for purpose. Funds we could be using for further training and skills seem to be stuck in limbo. I am sure the Minister is aware from speaking to a variety of people that nobody seems to be satisfied with it. I struggle to see the benefit because it is not doing what it says on the tin or what it is supposed to be doing, which is helping to fund training on a national level. It is not earning much of a yield either. It is sitting in short-term Irish Exchequer notes. We seem to be incurring a major opportunity cost here.
I am also aware of the Pact for Skills, the plan for 21st century skills. I believe the latest indication is that it will be late next year before there is any movement on this. Maybe the Minister could comment on that also. We only recently had the 2023 national skills bulletin produced by SOLAS. It identifies skills shortages in science, engineering, ICT, health and social care, construction, other craft, hospitality, transport and logistics. All the while, the National Training Fund continues to grow in size but not in significance. It is up to €1.5 billion but looks no closer to being put into the kind of productive use so many people are calling for.
It is also time to consider a special purpose fund for university research equipment and consumables. These are key to scientific-based research and are major overheads for the universities. This is something the sector has been calling for. As it is not completely unrelated to the National Training Fund, has the Department given any consideration to this? One of the big issues the big universities are constantly raising is making sure they have state-of-the-art, modern-day equipment to make sure they can continue in the work they are doing. This is quite a significant issue for them. We all want it to be as good as possible and to promote innovation and science here. It is important to make sure we have equipment that is up to date.
In the context of a united Ireland and greater North-South co-operation in research and higher education, I want to mention the shared island unit. That is not under the Minister's Department but the research it is funding, particularly the partnerships between different forms of medical research, is relevant. I hope we see more and increasing partnerships and collaboration between universities in the North and the South. I was recently in Queen's University Belfast where I met some people who have direct collaborations North and South. It is important this week that we recognise the achievements of Irish scientists wherever they were born on this island. It absolutely timely to celebrate all of them. Ireland has a very long and proud scientific tradition, having produced science which made great and historic contributions to the sum of human knowledge. Robert Boyle is often referred to the father of chemistry. Ernest Walton was a physicist and Nobel laureate. Then there are the great women of Irish science like Ellen Hutchins, the pioneering botanist and Edith Anne Stoney, who is believed to be the first woman medical physicist. There are many others, so many more than we could ever name here. In a week such as this, let us not just value the output of science. We need to make sure we recognise and call for the rewarding of those who make the inputs possible.
Agus an tSeachtain Eolaíochta ann faoi láthair, sílim go bhfuil sé ríthábhachtach go bhfeicfimid go bhfuil chuile shórt á dhéanamh sna scoileanna freisin agus go bhfuil deis ag scoileanna freisin, ar nós na cinn i mo cheantar féin i nGaillimh, rudaí eolaíochta a dhéanamh. Is cuimhin liom, nuair a bhí mé ar an scoil, go raibh deiseanna áille agus iontacha ann. Uaireanta, d'fhéadfaimis dul amach agus plé le daoine a bhíodh ag obair san earnáil.
Ach, mar gheall ar na daoine atá ag obair san earnáil, tá a fhios againn go bhfuil deacrachtaí ar leith acu faoi láthair. Caithfimid a chinntiú go bhfuil conarthaí maithe ag na daoine atá ag obair sna hollscoileanna. Go háirithe, tá a fhios agam nach mbíonn conarthaí sách maith acu go minic agus, mar gheall air sin, nach bhfuil na deiseanna céanna acu is atá ag daoine, cosúil leis an deis morgáiste a fháil nó cosúil le, fiú amháin, tús a chur clann a bheith acu, agus chuile shórt mar sin, mar gheall go bhfuil siad faoi bhrú uafásach, agus mar gheall nach bhfuil siad in ann a rá go mbeidh siad san ollscoil sin bliain i ndiaidh bliana. Caithfimid a chinntiú, nuair atáimid ag plé le cúrsaí eolaíochta agus ag plé leis na buntáistí ar fad a bhaineann leis an eolaíocht, go bhfuilimid ag plé freisin leis na daoine iad féin atá ag obair san earnáil chun a chinntiú gur deis mhaith í do dhaoine agus gur féidir le daoine saol maith a bheith acu agus iad ag obair san earnáil seo. Tá sé sin ríthábhachtach.
It is safe to say that in our current journey through a climate emergency and a world driven by artificial intelligence, AI, it is critical that we keep science and research at the forefront of our discussions here in the Oireachtas and in government. Science is not a distant concept confined to lab coats. It is the bedrock of understanding how global challenges impact on our everyday lives. It is our responsibility to ensure that investments in science and research remain strong. In celebrating Science Week, we are not just looking at a field of study. We are embracing a culture that values curiosity, innovation and evidence-based understanding. I encourage everyone to participate in this week. There is absolutely loads of activities happening around the country. There is a really good reason the European innovation scoreboard ranked Ireland as a strong innovator.
Our commitment to science must and, indeed, does extend beyond this week. It is essential to diversify both the profession and the teaching of science. We cannot be what we cannot see. Women's contribution to science is invaluable yet often it is under-represented and underacknowledged. By encouraging more women and girls to pursue careers in STEM, we are not just advocating for gender equality; we are ensuring diverse perspectives essential for innovation. Some 57% of girls lack confidence in their ability to pursue a STEM career while 66% of girls see lack of information about STEM careers as a barrier to pursuing a career in STEM. Some 84% of girls want to know more about STEM and 93% reject the stereotype that STEM careers are more suited to boys than girls. That is so encouraging, especially for young people and children growing up in Ireland right now.
Locally it is great to see Ballyowen Castle community centre playing a vital role in nurturing young minds through the Brickx club which enhances children's analytical abilities. Coder Dojo recently held workshops in Lucan library. KidsComp Ireland, which offers in-person classes in Lucan, is this month expanding to new centres in Adamstown and Tallaght. That is really progressive and an important step towards introducing more children to the world of coding. It shows there is demand for that among kids and their parents to learn more about coding. I would also like to take a moment to praise the students from Lucan Community College and Adamstown Community College who qualified in this year's BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibition. In Adamstown Community College we had a runner-up in this prestigious nationwide competition and the whole community is so proud of him. I also love attending the ESB Science Blast for primary schoolchildren. I attended this year's event, which was the first in-person event since Covid.
They had been doing it online. At the BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibition and the ESB Science Blast events there is always such a great sense of excitement and passion. I love getting to talk to students from Lucan, Clondalkin, Palmerstown, Newcastle, Saggart, Rathcoole and Citywest because they are so excited about being able to showcase the work they do. I take this opportunity to wish all students participating in the upcoming competitions the very best of luck. We really do need to invest in schools' abilities to access these programmes. That is particularly the case when it comes to schools in DEIS areas.
With the local elections just around the corner, it must be pointed out in our fast-moving and tech-driven world, the challenge of misinformation and disinformation really looms large. Understanding how to identify credible information is more critical than ever. We need to educate our communities about these challenges. I welcome the commitment from the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, to create a new research and innovation funding agency. I also welcome the part he played in merging the Irish Research Council with Science Foundation Ireland.
Deputy Denis Naughten is in the Chamber. He calls for this debate annually, and I thank him for that. It is critical for us as a Parliament to have this debate but it is also critical to highlight the importance that scientific research and the use of evidence-based policy has for the Government and for all our day-to-day lives. As we navigate these changing and challenging times, let us remember that our commitment to science and technology is not just for a week or a year; it is a lifelong journey that will shape our future and that of our children.
I welcome this debate and the fact that we are having it. I too commend Deputy Denis Naughten, who is the chair of the Oireachtas Friends of Science group, on the work done in this regard. I am happy to also be a member of the group.
As the Minister of State has said, sometimes the focus and the idea of science is people in white coats working in labs or dealing with CERN. I welcome the statement in relation to CERN . The Government should get on with it. It is, however, important to have a far broader interpretation of science and recognition of it. There is huge opportunity but also a requirement on the State in the context of technical professions, engineering, trades and crafts. There is a major skill and a science involved in each of those areas. It is important to appreciate that.
I welcome this year's science week theme of "Human?", with the focus on the future of being human. We hosted the Centre for Advanced Sustainable Energy, based in Queens University Belfast, when we welcomed them to the audiovisual room in Leinster House earlier this week. The support we have from the scientific community in the area of research is extremely important as we wrestle with policy considerations. It is also important that we are open about and engaged with that.
As I do on an annual basis - and I am sorry to have to do it again - I must make the case for our working scientists, especially medical scientists. They are still waiting for pay parity. The Minister of State will remember that these people went on strike in May 2022. On the back of that, there was an independent assessment of their pay claim. It was agreed that they are deserving. I was certainly aware, as were those working in the sector, that a 7% pay increase to match the work of clinical biochemists was recommended in the Devine report published in January of this year. The Government has not implemented that. I ask that the Government would please implement it if we want scientists. The previous speaker mentioned encouraging women in science. I worked as a medical scientist. It is a predominantly female profession, with the very best of scientists. Our scientists are also in European competition. Medical science student Gavin Buckley won the President's prize this year. He then competed and medalled at European level for his research on CDK12 in breast cancer. This shows the standard and calibre of scientists we are producing. Then when they go and work - in this case largely in our public health sector - they are not supported or treated equally. There is an unfairness in that regard. We must consider what this does to morale, recruitment and retention. It does one thing. I ask the Minister of State to please act on the recommendations in the Devine report and give medical scientists pay parity.
I make special mention in these statements of the importance of science to the work we do as politicians. It is really important that we recognise the importance of science and that we use it in our work in terms of policy. There have been some cases - a number of which received attention - where scientists, some working for State agencies, have come before Oireachtas committees and their views have been dismissed, their work denigrated and they have been badgered. I would say they have been treated entirely inappropriately. I have absolutely no problem with people engaging with the models that are being used, with the detail of it and with the scrutiny of it, but sometimes in this place that is not what happens. If we are to be serious about the policy decisions we have to make then we must engage with our working scientists and with science in an honest and earnest way, and not play politics or play games with it. We can lead by example. We would all benefit if we did that.
I thank Deputy Denis Naughten and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, for giving us the opportunity to speak on this topic as we celebrate Science Week 2023. This occasion provides us with an invaluable opportunity to recognise the importance of STEM in our society and to reflect on the progress we have made in these fields. I have spoken at length over the years about the power of science to shape our world, and how our choices in research in this field echo our aspirations for the future and the injustices and challenges we seek to address.
I will use this speaking opportunity not only to reiterate these points, but to also highlight the need to increase equity and inclusion in our education system to encourage more young people to get involved in STEM. Last month in the BT Young Scientist of the year award winners, Liam Carew and Shane O’Connor, secured second place when they brought their project to an EU-wide competition. This shows how much a small country like Ireland punches above its weight when it can place this highly when competing at EU level. Imagine how successful we could be if we extended opportunities of engaging in STEM to communities historically left out of the conversation. A recent survey of secondary school students shows that pupils not thinking they are smart enough, a lack of confidence, and not enough information on the benefits of a career in STEM are among the most common reasons why they do not pursue a career in the field.
While Ireland has enjoyed great successes domestically and internationally in STEM, will the Minister of State explain how he believes this success might possibly continue when the latest available data shows an unprecedented shortfall of more than 800 vacant teaching posts across primary school classes, undermining the education of pupils with the greatest needs? This is against a backdrop of a budget labelled by the Teachers Union of Ireland “as baffling as it is worrying". Teachers are leaving this country in their droves as a result of the appalling conditions in which they are expected to work. There are young people with limitless potential in the field of STEM who will not have the luxury of pursuing it because they do not have the teacher to nurture that interest. The Government parties like to talk about Ireland’s economic success due to their policies, but they have created an education system that will result in the loss of thousands of brilliant potential minds in STEM simply because there are inadequate resources to nurture their talent.
Another survey focuses on a topic that I have brought up year on year when the opportunity presents itself. A country-wide survey of more than 2,000 female transition year students found that 64% of respondents saw a lack of information on STEM college courses as a considerable barrier to pursuing careers in these fields. This highlights a missed opportunity for our society to benefit from the diverse perspectives and talents that girls and women can bring to STEM disciplines. We cannot afford to overlook the potential contribution of half of our population in these critical areas of innovation and progress.
This example does not even begin to cover how marginalised communities miss out. Women from working class communities are least likely to participate in STEM courses in school, hardly ever take STEM courses in college and are rarely seen in leadership positions in STEM industries. Never mind a seat at the table, members of working-class and lower income communities are not even encouraged with the idea that this world might be one to which they can contribute and improve.
This week, the RTÉ docu-drama "Tomorrow Tonight" began. The programme envisions the eve of a make-or-break climate summit in the year 2050, guiding viewers through breaking news moments on a seismic night, as climate change pushes the planet to a moment of crisis. Speaking on what she wishes to achieve, one of the programme's presenters , Ms Carla O’Brien said she hoped the use of technologies like augmented reality would help viewers to better understand the facts and science behind what is a defining issue of our generation. It is a perfect example of the kind of material that can be produced when the arts and technology come together to create accessible content which explains what can often be complex technological information on a platform that is available to all. However, programmes like this are few and far between. Increased funding for the arts would be invaluable in spreading awareness of the scientific and technological information that will be imperative for protecting and enhancing our future.
The power of combining arts and STEM to increase access and awareness of important issues cannot be underestimated. While I applaud the Government for initiatives such as the STEM in Youth Work project, which is an excellent way to engage younger people in STEM, unless systematic failures on the part of the State to address historic levels of inequality are addressed, schemes like this present a piecemeal approach, at best.
The theme for Science Week 2023 is ‘Human?’ It asks people to consider what it means to be human in today’s world, and how the decisions we make today will impact the world of the future. I do have to think about how stark this theme might seem against the backdrop of the consequences of decisions made over the past couple of decades that have left so many children in Ireland without homes and living in abject poverty. How does the Minister think a child living in a hotel room, emergency accommodation or overcrowded housing might find the time to focus on endeavours like furthering their learning in science or technology? During Covid, one of the debates we had centred on the issue of access to technology. Many children did not have access to a table to place a laptop, even if they had one. Why not use Science Week as a catalyst for change? It should be a wake up call for the Government to finally foster an environment where every young person has the opportunity to pursue their passions in STEM, regardless of where they may come from.
We can and should build a more inclusive and innovative society for generations to come. Science and technology will play a big part in that.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on Science Week. I applaud the great work being done across every sector in advancing science. Recent studies from the European Union showed the number of young people in Ireland who have gone on to third level education and the on to PhDs. They have contributed enormously to the advances but we have more to do. We often think of science in terms of medicine and other traditional areas but there is a raft of them that are moving at pace, none more so than those addressing the challenges of climate change facing the country and the world.
We have seen many scientific advances in agriculture in the context of what can be done rather than the simplistic way of going about it, namely, cutting production and reducing the size of the national herd. Much more can be done in this regard through the use of science. That is what needs happen.
I listened with interest to some of the contributions. It is extremely important that we have the discussion every year and we have a robust exchange as to the challenges we face. We have set up an excellent education system and we are bringing people on to PhDs and right across the spectrum. However, there are challenges. One of these is access to education for people from low-income families. There needs to be uniformity across the sector to ensure that people can get access to education. This brings to mind a case which I am still working on of two pupils with the exact same background. One of them got a college grant to go on to a PhD and the other did not. The fees were to be paid by the sponsoring company. When applying, one person mistakenly put in the stipend and the fees as income and another just put in the fees. This meant that the first person was considered to be above threshold for a grant. It is important that the Departments and the local authority that processed the application acknowledge the error and ensure that everybody has equal access to education.
Students in primary and post-primary school look at particular areas of science. The Young Scientist exhibition has been a phenomenal success in engaging with young people as to how best to come up with new ideas and see them becoming a reality.
While we congratulate ourselves on what we have done, we must look at the challenges that will arise in the next few years and encourage more people to study science. We must look at innovative ways to address the very serious issues facing our country. Science comes up with very good ways of doing business. We have looked at the overreliance on oil and the development of hydrotreated vegetable oil, HVO, fuels in the past while. As a result of ideologies, there is a blockage in the system which is not allowing this to replace some oil-based products. I refer, in particular, to home heating oil in this regard. We have to look at the science, the facts and the information available to us and make sure that they are implemented, irrespective of ideology. Many of us look to the advances in science to deal with the challenges facing the world. The new initiatives coming through from science need to be embraced with open arms.
Over the years we have seen a huge amount of scientific and technological development in the area of agriculture. It is important that we encourage scientists, students and people who engage with science to make sure that we have a world-class product - which we have developed over the years in agriculture - that is sustainable into the future.
The cheapest and easiest route for some commentators is to assert that we need to cut production. That is not the reality because we face the prospect of there being 10 billion people on the planet in the not-too-distant future. They will all have to be fed. Developments in the area of agriculture and the food we produce will allow that to happen. I am heartened to see the scientific community encouraging people to develop new methods and new ideas.
Earlier this year I completed an adult education course at UCC. My classmates were fantastic people who can contribute an awful lot. These people have life experience when they take up courses. We should be making it easier for people to return to further education. People on that course came from all walks of life. We should make it easier and more attainable for people to attend such courses. Uniformity of access is important. Where mistakes were made in the past regarding stipends and grants, these should be rectified by the Department, even at this late stage.
I am delighted to be here to make a statement on Science Week and on the importance of scientific and technological advances in our economy and society.
My mother was born in 1932. She had osteoporosis as a child and spent several years in Cappagh Hospital from when she was seven until she was 11. The medicines that were available then were very poor compared to those for a child in a similar situation nowadays - it is day and night of a difference. That has occurred because of the research and development that we see, particularly in the medical field but in a whole range of areas. Across our economy, we see huge advances, particularly in the field of medical devices, pharma and so on.
We see more of our children engaging in this area. Mention was made of the number of students engaged in science and technology, some of them doing PhDs. Indeed, I have a nephew doing a PhD at the moment in UCD. He asked me to raise the issue of the payment that students receive, which is very poor in the circumstance of having to live in Dublin, particularly for people from outside the city. It is something the Government needs to take on because PhD students are talking about going on strike as a consequence. As we know, many PhD students in colleges and universities are the very ones who correct the papers and do a lot of the work, and the colleges would practically come to a standstill if that were to happen. It is an issue that needs to be examined. There is also the issue of the medical scientists and their claim for additional and better pay and conditions. The Devine report is on the Minister's desk and it needs to be brought forward.
Someone once asked me what is the opportunity for a person to be able to make money. The big thing that makes the difference is if they start with money. It is almost the same when it comes to education. Many people who grow up in households or communities that do not have the same engagement in education that others have are at a huge disadvantage. If they grow up in a community or household where the importance of education, research and all of those things is central to their lives and they see that going on around them, they have a much greater chance of engaging in that, even in an equal opportunities society. That is one of the issues we need to examine. There are whole swathes of people in poorer and low income households who do not engage in the same way that they would otherwise. While I appreciate that some speakers have talked about education and the opportunities that exist, many are blocked because of the circumstances they live in or the place they come from. To be able to lift that base is something the Government needs to emphasise.
The big thing that Science Week is looking at is the theme of humanity, with climate change and what we can do about it making the biggest impact. I often think that many of the issues we have today are the consequences of poor technological advancements in the past. That is why we have to be careful as we advance, given that, sometimes, some of the things we do can have a negative knock-on effect that we do not foresee. Most of the problems that we have will, hopefully, be overcome by technology, automation and the advances that can be made, but they can only be made if we have people who are engaged in those areas, not just doing the research but also doing the development that needs to be done to take it to the stage where many of these new ideas and advances can be brought to a commercial footing.
The big issue that we see in many areas, including the area that I am engaged in most, which is transport, is the electrification of the fleet, moving away from fossil fuels and trying to get people away from that by using electric buses, electric trains and electric cars and the battery technology around that. The fact the resources that go into those technologies are scarce and have an impact on our environment, and the huge difficulties around all of that, can only be overcome by more research and development and by ensuring we put all our effort into that.
It is interesting that, at the same time, we see continued resistance from the fossil fuel industry to go down that path. They want to continue to invest in something which, in reality, is the past. Science Week is an opportunity for us to focus on where the important things are, and the important thing is clearly around resolving the issues that we have today, many of which have been created as a consequence of poor technology in the past, but technology can provide huge opportunities for our future. The opportunity is to be able to get more of our young people involved in science and moving towards those technological advances that can, hopefully, create a bright future for everyone.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss science and its role and importance in our society and for our future in Science Week. The Minister said in his speech relating to Science Week that science is about being human, and I think that is absolutely right. In a way, it defines what being human is, although Deputy Gannon is also right to say that the other thing that defines what being human is is art. Science and art are the two things that human beings do that are completely unique in that we imagine other possible futures and then we endeavour to make those futures up. That is completely unique to our species. The bumblebees that make the beehive have been making the same beehive for thousands and thousands of years and they do not decide to change the design. No other animal or species is capable of doing that - of imagining something that is not there and then actually trying to find the wherewithal to develop the means to make it happen. These are two uniquely human attributes that give us both a huge responsibility and a huge opportunity.
We have to be serious when we say that we are going to support these things. It is primarily science that we are looking at here but, in a way, the arts are the precursor of science in that you imagine first and then you try to get the materials, the wherewithal and the nuts and bolts to make the thing that you imagine happen. Without art, there is no science, I would argue.
When we look at the level of money that we invest in art and culture, proportionately, it is a tiny fraction of what it should be and pitifully low compared to most of our European counterparts. The estimates seem to vary. One estimate is that we spend about 0.1% of GDP on art. I asked the Minister how we were progressing in addressing that pitifully low level of investment and the reply was that it was maybe 0.2% in actuality, whereas the average in Europe is about 0.6%. It is worth thinking about an important comparison in this regard. The push to militarise Europe with PESCO is by getting military expenditure up to 2% of GDP and most European states are beyond that. They are aiming for military expenditure - the means to kill people - to be three times higher than the average European arts expenditure and it would be about 20 times higher than our current arts expenditure. It is worth dwelling on our priorities given we are using our imaginations and scientific know-how to develop ever more sophisticated ways to kill people, rather than to make society a better place or address the climate crisis.
If that is true of art, let us look at science. The expenditure on research, innovation and science by the Department of the Minister, Deputy Harris, this year was reduced by 3%. It is all very well talking about taking science seriously, having science weeks and blowing the trumpet about the importance of science but, in actuality, we cut the budget and the public expenditure on science. That is pretty shameful, particularly when we look at the people who actually do the research on science. Postgraduate researchers are living on less than the minimum wage and the average earnings for a PhD researcher in this country are €9,000. Imagine trying to live on that.
The Government has taken notice of this because of a massive campaign by the Postgraduate Workers Organisation, PWO, which is demanding PhD researchers be treated as workers, be paid a living wage and get things like sick pay and holiday entitlements instead of being in the precarious situation they are in. The PWO has said researchers need about €30,000 per year. Across much of Europe, such researchers get paid about €50,000. That compares with €9,000 here. The Government has given a marginal increase to those who get the funded PhDs from SFI and the other public body, the name of which I forget. This means only a small proportion of the researchers will see their stipends go from €18,000 to €22,000. That is still way below the living wage and the vast majority of PhD researchers still will not get that, in other words the vast majority of the people we expect to do this science we are lauding on Science Week are living in poverty and under pressure to either leave the country or give up on their scientific research.
The total budget for publicly funded science this year is down 3% to €264 million. How much do we give to the big multinational corporations in research and development tax breaks every year? It was €750 million last year. The Government has also given them an increase in that to bring it up by another €57 million. At the finance committee, we managed to prise out information to the effect that the vast majority of the tax breaks are going to about 100 of the richest corporations in the world, including Google, Facebook, Apple, etc. They are getting money to research new iPhones in order to make fortunes above and beyond the already obscene profits they are making and continue to develop things that, quite frankly, are not that useful to society, while the people who might be developing new medicines, climate technology and other stuff to make our society better are getting a tiny fraction of the money. We need to change our priorities if we are serious about science and its value to our society.
It is with great enthusiasm and pride we celebrate Science Week. It is a time dedicated to recognising the invaluable contributions of science and technology to our society. It is important that we take this opportunity and use it as a platform to reflect on the significant progress we have made and the strides we still need to make to ensure a brighter, more innovative future for our country.
I will use my time to focus on a particular initiative that exemplifies the spirit of Science Week and the increasingly positive culture of innovative science that is permeating our education system, namely, the Longford Microsoft Dream Space Showcase that took place in Edgeworthstown earlier in the year. It was significant that it took place in Edgeworthstown, home to the Edgeworth family, who were pioneers of education and science in Ireland. It was a day of inspiration, with 300 young primary school children from 11 schools across the county coming together to showcase their science projects and what they were able to do with microchips and a whole surge of creative energy.
We meed to acknowledge funding from Creative Ireland and the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform and the significant role played by Longford County Council in this initiative. I was interested to hear the previous speaker and Deputy Gannon say that we sometimes marginalise art at the expense of science, so it is important this project very much showcased what we now refer to as STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. For far too long, students who were creative felt they could not go down the science route because they did not have the core skills to do that, but this project brought young pupils together in a collaborative effort, so people who were strong on art and people who were strong on the science were able to work together. It was a really inspiring project.
It was a national project that began in January. Longford County Council was selected to run it. The council's IT department is headed up by a top-class guy named Danny Lynch, and he, Christine Collins and a number of key people on the staff drove this project. There was great collaboration with the library service and also the arts team headed up by Shane Crossan. It was a real collective, collaborative effort. It involved giving out small computers called micro:bits to the 11 schools that participated. Students were given a crash course in how to work these, were sent away and then came back with their ideas and showcased them over the course of a Friday in the centre in Edgeworthstown. It was our mini Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition and it was fantastic to see the energy in that room. We must acknowledge the role played by Creative Ireland and the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform, but also the county council, which really drove this project. Were it not for its support I do not think the report would have happened. It is a new era when we see an IT department from a local authority heading up a project like this. It shows how the whole culture and ethos within our local authorities is changing as well, in that it is so much centred on education and the value of education.
This is not an isolated project; it is going to become an annual event. It is really testimony to the success of this initiative that it is also going to be the platform to enable Longford, we hope, to become the first county where all secondary schools will offer computer science as a leaving certificate subject. That is significant. It is an ambitious project supported, as I said, by the council but also a number of key employers, most notably Microsoft, but also Ericsson, which is based in Athlone, were really support of the initiative. I wish to single out Sinéad Pillion, who is the senior programmer at Ericsson and a native of Longford. She was really ambitious about this project, primarily because Ericsson noticed a small number of graduates per capitawere coming through from the county to the company and it wanted to improve on that. The company said it would work with the council and the upshot is this very exciting initiative.
Three local schools, namely, Scoil Mhuire, Longford, Ballymahon Vocational School and Templemicheal College, Longford, are at the forefront of this initiative. Computer science is already being taught to fifth-year students in preparation for their leaving certificate ,and 21 sixth-year students of Scoil Mhuire are set to become the first class in County Longford to complete the leaving certificate compute science syllabus this year. I offer my sincere congratulations to the schools taking part and their teachers for leading the way in this groundbreaking endeavour. Industry support has been critical to the success of the project. The collaboration with Microsoft and Ericsson highlights the importance of partnerships between education and industry in shaping the technological landscape of our region. On this point I acknowledge the efforts of our local employers, most notably Abbott, Avery Dennison and Technimark, which, through lifetime learning, are encouraging their staff to constantly upskill, especially in the area of science. That is very important as well.
We must also acknowledge the work of Midlands Science. Thanks to Deputy Denis Naughten, it gave us a briefing in the audiovisual room in recent weeks and it was very informative. It is running an event in Ballymahon on Friday as part of Science Week and the young children there are really looking forward to that. Again, this shows how science goes outside the laboratory. The children will be looking at local wildlife past and present. It is making science real and tangible for young people, which is extremely important. We must acknowledge the value of science; it needs to be front and centre and a core part of education now and into the future. At all times, we need to use every opportunity we get to champion youth in the support and pursuit of knowledge and innovation.
Science Week is incredibly important. We recognise the huge potential we have as humans and the massive strides we have made through science. It is also fair enough to say huge difficulties have been created by certain aspects. Speaking as a constituency Teachta Dála, I have seen some of the positive work that has been done by the likes of SOLAS and the Louth-Meath Education and Training Board, LMETB, with the Ó Fiaich Institute of Further Education and Drogheda Institute of Further Education, and the multiple paths there are now to education that did not exist when I was growing up. I spoke to the Minister of State about the pre-apprenticeship route before and been generally supportive of it, although a lot more concentration is needed. We recognise the absolute necessity of craft apprenticeships, which we need now more than ever, especially when we are talking about housebuilding, retrofitting and so on.
Beyond that, I have seen pre-tech apprenticeship courses and have visited Dunshaughlin, where FIT has a joint operation with LMETB. The centre also provides necessary training on white goods, a skill set needed in every town and area of Ireland because there are not enough people with such training when your oven or fridge go on the blink. From the point of view of taking action on climate change, we need to ensure such goods last longer than they have in recent times. I was really impressed with some of these pre-tech apprenticeship courses. They deal with people who would not necessarily be able to get onto certain other courses at the point they are currently at in their lives. I have seen people being able to make that journey right through learning and on to getting qualifications and then getting employment, the most important part, in areas such as cybersecurity and robotics. We really need to do more work in that area.
I commend some of the work done at Dundalk Institute of Technology, DKIT. Its regional development centre has looked at everything from climate change to medical technology. It has put people together and facilitated a million and one start-up companies - that is probably not the exact figure - which have provided employment and, beyond that, provided some absolutely innovative goods. I would like to see more of that happening.
Last year, I spoke about my son being in Ó Fiaich Institute of Further Education. I have seen all the benefits of the institute both as a secondary school and in what it offers by way of post-leaving certificate courses and so on. I have spoken before about the constrained site. An application has been submitted for a new regional skills and training centre. That may be necessary to deal with some of the need for space. In addition, I have been involved in discussions with LMETB on introducing pre-apprenticeship courses at Muirhevnamor Community Centre. Your mind varies as to what is most suitable and what will most benefit the community but we need to facilitate those who are outside the reach of education and, sometimes, employment and to make sure the opportunities that are available become available to them. That is something we need to see.
We are also talking about housing. That goes without saying. We have seen some of the moves that have been made. The State needs to do more in the area of modular construction and even in the area of 3D concrete printing. We have great options before us now.
On the downsides, we all know of the issues affecting human beings. We are all looking at the flooding and everything else. At this stage, it is impossible not to accept that drastic things need to be done. In some cases, we need to do what is necessary from a technological point of view, such as delivering on wind energy. Beyond that, we have to look at some of the other major impacts. We are looking at the war in Gaza at the minute. That shows the bad side. We can talk about the Eitan armoured fighting vehicle, the F-35s and the amount of money being put into drone technology, but none of that is beneficial to Gaza. Overall, human beings have great options and great opportunities but we also have to take a serious look at ourselves as regards some of the issues we have created.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the Business Committee for selecting this debate and the Minister and Chief Whip for facilitating it. Ireland's forthcoming membership of CERN will not only provide new opportunities for Irish researchers, but also challenge the underlying ethos of research itself in this country. This funding of €2 million annually for CERN's research initiatives predominantly supports exploratory or "blue sky" research, an area where venturing into the unknown is essential and where failure is a critical component of the learning process. It is noteworthy that a mere 2% of investments in this type of science and technology research actually yield results. This move marks a significant departure from Ireland's traditional approach to funding scientific research, which has been primarily results-driven with a strong emphasis on generating tangible outcomes such as job creation. The involvement of Ireland in CERN is poised to reshape the perspective of the Irish Civil Service and politicians towards scientific research, recognising it as an incremental journey of discovery where today's efforts may only bear fruit decades later.
Participation in CERN offers Irish researchers, especially young researchers, the opportunity to hone a unique set of problem-solving skills, training people to solve problems we never knew existed up to this point. These skills are not only academically valuable but also crucial for addressing global challenges from climate change to geopolitical tensions. Moreover, Ireland's engagement with CERN extends beyond scientific advancement. It can also contribute to the organisation's founding principle of fostering co-operation between people in conflict. Drawing from Ireland's experience in the peace process, where science has served as a neutral ground for building new relationships, there is potential for CERN, in collaboration with Irish scientists, to apply its problem-solving ethos to the realm of peacebuilding.
In Ireland, we have leveraged science not only at the policy and political level, but also at the citizen level to identify challenges and then agree on a roadmap to address them. This approach has been instrumental in fostering new relationships across our island, utilising science as a neutral ground for building bridges of understanding and tolerance. My personal experiences as a Minister, particularly in the area of environmental policy, have shown that science transcends borders and beliefs, uniting us in our shared human experience, because regardless of where we live or worship, we all breathe the same air and drink the same water. CERN, through its engagement with Irish scientists, now has the opportunity to extend this culture of problem-solving to the sphere of peacebuilding. Science is the universal language and it offers a neutral platform for dialogue. It transcends borders and employs a methodical approach to establish concrete facts. This can pave the way for historically divided neighbours to initiate dialogue, potentially leading to a future where their grandchildren can play together.
Although seemingly different, peace and science are deeply connected. Peace allows science to thrive and, in return, science can lay the groundwork for lasting peace. In politics, evidence-based decision-making, informed by rigorous scientific research, ensures our policies are not just effective but also equitable and just.
With that at its core, I was honoured to co-chair the first formal Inter-Parliamentary Union-CERN science for peace school, held last December on the CERN campus in Geneva, where we focused on the concept of water. The principle behind the science for peace schools is to bring together members of parliaments, the decision-makers and future leaders, with the scientists, allowing them to leave their historical political baggage outside the door along with a closed mindset to new solutions. By fostering dialogue and creating a community of parliamentary experts, we are aiming to address global challenges under the impartial and evidence-based umbrella of science.
During my time at CERN, I worked with participants to help apply the tools of scientific method and problem-solving to the political and practical challenges of water shortage and supply issues, focusing primarily on two regions, namely, the Middle East and the Sahel region of west Africa. These are regions where water is both a lifeline and a potential source of conflict. Scientific collaboration can offer a beacon of hope, especially in what is happening in Gaza today. We are exploring not only how we can use technology to provide practical solutions to specific challenges but also how to use the tools of scientific engagement to build stronger relationships between neighbouring countries and their parliaments that have historically been distant.
The CERN campus was an ideal location to host this school not just due to the culture of openness and problem-solving, but also because, as I said earlier, the core purpose of the founding fathers of CERN was to foster co-operation between peoples in conflict while promoting a culture of problem-solving.
Sadly, this has become increasingly more important today in an ever more polarised political atmosphere, where solution-orientated policymaking is becoming a more peripheral aspect of decision making. It is becoming far too nationalistic. While I do not have any issue with pride in one’s country, there is sadly an ugly underside emerging, generating fear and suspicion of anyone who is different, let it be in outlook or origin.
Seeing first-hand that mix of outlook and origin at CERN, it was very evident that this was the cornerstone of their problem-solving culture. Through the broader political engagements that took place over the week of that school, it demonstrated how solution-orientated policy can be incorporated into the wider political process.
In conclusion, the path to peace, especially in regions marred by conflict, is challenging. But let the science for peace school mission serve as an inspiration, a testament to the power of unity, understanding and the unyielding pursuit of knowledge. Through the combined efforts of science and politics, through dialogue and collaboration, we can pave the way for a future where resources are shared, challenges are met with innovation and peace is lasting and profound. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
I hope the Howlin name continues to be carried with aplomb in Wexford.
First, I would also like to acknowledge the contribution of Deputy Dennis Naughten to the Dáil in elevating the status of science in our debates. Deputy Naughten has been singularly committed to doing that and it is something that hopefully will continue even though we may not still have him in the Houses.
I want to ask for three things in the context of this debate on Science Week. One, I ask, as I did last year, that Science Week be changed to a science and design week. My second ask is that it should be marked by an audit of key indicators of progress in engagement with science across our community. The third is that we should be seeking science champions to help us adopt the innovation we need in our community to transform how we are living, which science already very largely has answers to.
Taking those in turn, I have always believed that design is the neglected element in Ireland. It is powerful in other countries and some small countries like our own have made their future from the cleverness of their design and their ability to transform very ordinary enterprises into leading-edge enterprises by having smarts in design. We have not really invested in that and by changing this to also include design, and auditing what is happening in the design world, it would be very valuable.
With regard to climate, which is I suppose a big preoccupation, and with regard to environmental damage generally, it is well known that 80% of the damage done to the environment is baked in at the design stage. Whether that is in the design of our products, of our urban living, our buildings or the design of our farm methods, this is at the heart and where many of our problems begin.
I am not going to get into it here but there are numerous examples of how we are not using resources wisely in the way we live our lives and it is back to those issues of design, whether that is in the pollution we generate, the waste we generate, or a failure to harness the capacity of our land not only to produce good food but also to rectify some of the damage that is being done. We have not fixed that design challenge in many of the sectors and I believe that we need to bring it centre stage in a more realistic way in policy.
The second request I have is to ask for an audit. It is a long time since Deputy Naughten and myself had a look at science in our schools and I confess that I have not come back to revisit the data. Female participation does not seem to me to be a great deal higher than it was 20 years ago, or whatever it was, when we looked at this. Curriculum and assessment, while it has made some small changes, is still primarily reliant on memorisation in the area of science which is wholly inappropriate for an area of learning which has got to do with lighting a flame of inquiry, not regurgitating facts that have been learned by rote. We need to detach science subjects from the slow pace of reform in other curriculum and assessment areas because it is so fundamentally different and deserves special attention.
We need to look at things like participation in BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition and SciFest, which I am glad to be going to next week. These are transformative experiences for kids who go through and yet when one looks at the list of schools, it is the same schools, year in and year out, who enter. There are hundreds of schools which never expose their students or school to competitions like the young scientists competition or SciFest. That is such a sad lack. It would not be a difficult thing to seek to drive up that participation, particularly among women students. In small things like that, if we can identify the things which can make a change and then start to work systematically from one Science Week to the next, we can seek to shift the dial on some of these items which we audit.
The last thing I would like to see is science champions to help us adopt innovation, using science in their lives. I have been involved in the discussion around climate change and one often hears people saying "listen to the science", which of course is right. One cannot negotiate with the science of climate change. However, I find many climate scientists feel that it is enough to issue the dire warnings about the direction of travel but when it comes to the solutions spoken about by Deputy Naughten, these scientists hand it back over to the political spokespersons to fix it. That is falling way short of what we need from the scientific community. We need to sponsor support for science champions to step out of the lab and of the research centre and help us with that very transformative task of innovation and the application of knowledge to the things we are doing in our daily lives.
Last week we heard the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, report that two thirds of the waste which is dumped into municipal waste should not be there in the first place. That is not a complicated issue but I will say that many families are totally confused. That is the sort of area where leadership coming from the scientific community could be very helpful.
In the farm arena, where we know transformative change is coming at us rapidly, we still, as a community, cannot turn around to farmers and describe to them what a prosperous farm will look like in ten or 20 years time. We do not have the line of sight on the environmental services which might be delivered or how we could incentivise re-wetting of peatlands or all of the many other changes that are needed there. We need the practical scientist to help us design those solutions.
I will not go into artificial intelligence and the need for us to have a clearer understanding, as politicians, as to the benefit that that is undoubtedly going to become and not be overwhelmed by the potential damage that it could equally do.
I very much welcome this debate. It happened last year and perhaps it will happen again next year, and I do not know if I will have a chance to participate if it happens next year, but we need to take a leaf out of Deputy Naughten's book, keep this to the fore and institute some real changes from this year to next year.
Hopefully the Minister of State will be here next year to report on some of the progress that has been made in the practical areas, where we could really see science transform our lives to the better.
Who would ever have thought that Science Week would generate such energy and excitement? As a former maths and science teacher, I am personally excited to see this, mainly because Science Week is primarily about making science fun, accessible and interesting, particularly to our young students. Earlier we heard the Minister list off the work of his Department. He promised not just to publish the independent review of our PhD research ecosystem but also, in parallel with its publication, to publish the action plan to take forward the recommendations of the review. One area of concern that has been highlighted many times is the current value of the stipend for our PhD students and how pitiful it is at the moment. It is a severe discouragement for any student to start and continue on a research project. The Minister has said that he will deal with it. He absolutely must make sure it is sufficient because right now it is not even at the level of a living wage.
As well as that, we need to encourage more students to look at career pathways that incorporate some or all of the science subjects. The Minister spoke about the imminent publication of the research and innovation Bill. We await that legislation and hope to see how the sector can be further resourced and supported. Before I came into the Chamber I had a look at the OECD rankings for research and development and where Ireland fares globally. If we look at our investment as a percentage of our GDP, out of 90 countries, we are in 38th place but because our GDP is high, it is possibly more realistic to look at our expenditure on a per capitabasis. By that measurement we are in 21st place, which is better. Still, if we look at many of our competitors, we see that we are way behind the likes of Australia and the Netherlands and we make half of the investment that is made in countries like Sweden, Austria and Switzerland. There is a lot of work to be made up there.
As I said earlier, Science Week is all about connecting children and ordinary people with no scientific background whatsoever to the science that is literally all around us. We are so lucky in Sligo to have a fabulous science fair at the Atlantic Technological University, ATU. It is taking place all of this week and finishes on Saturday. It is organised by the faculty of science in ATU Sligo and is sponsored by SFI and the pharmaceutical company AbbVie. As several colleagues have already said, the theme of this year's festival is human and it questions how human decisions will impact the future of the world. Of course, this is relevant for every single one of us. I want to echo the words of Deputy Bruton on the need to encourage more students to participate in the Young Scientist Exhibition and in SciFest. I try to go every year if possible because it is one of most interesting days, or even two days, that one can spend at an exhibition. The excitement in the place and the learning is so positive and so many more schools and students could benefit from involvement.
One of the most interesting things about Science Week is how primary and secondary students are targeted. I had a look at the ATU brochure and even though we are coming to the end of the week, there are still some very interesting programmes happening. On Friday in a number of primary schools there is a programme called Madlab where students will look at how to solder and how to make working electronic gadgets including things like musical bagpipes, burglar alarms and lie detectors. It is really fascinating stuff for young students. Similarly, there are other programmes in secondary schools. Perhaps the most exciting event, in which everyone can participate, is taking place tomorrow night. I refer to moon walking in Sligo at 8 p.m. in Slish Woods, a moonlit hike under the starlit sky that will give people an opportunity to learn about the wonders of astronomy and what our ancestors thought about the sky. Interestingly, participants will also discover how Star Wars really originated in Sligo and I am certainly looking forward to that. That is what I call interesting, exciting and making science relevant to all of us.
Finally, while I have the floor I want to reiterate what I have said a number of times previously and what was clearly articulated by the Ms Maura McNally, the Chair of the governing body of the ATU, at the incorporation of St. Angela's College into the ATU. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, was present when she referred to the historic underinvestment in capital projects in third level colleges in the northern and western region. The Northern and Western Regional Assembly's budget submission points out that the Higher Education Authority figures show, in relation to general capital funding, that the northern and western region's higher education institutes collectively continue to receive below average capital investment allocations. It says that between 2012 and 2022, the higher education institutes based in the northern and western region on average received general capital funding of €238 per undergraduate, while the national figure was €331, a difference of €93 per head for every single graduate enrolled. Research and innovation is as critical in the northern and western region as elsewhere and I ask that it would be adequately funded.
I thank everyone in the House for the opportunity to have this debate and for their contributions throughout. It was great to hear such a passionate discussion on science. This is a discussion that we would encourage not just us in this House to continue having, but everyone around the country, especially those who work with children. It is so important to encourage and instil a curiosity and enjoyment of science from a young age.
The Minister, Deputy Harris, mentioned earlier that we launched the quantum strategy this week. This is important for Ireland in continuing to demonstrate our dedication to quantum innovation by developing financial and institutional supports for research and innovation including the establishment of a national advisory forum for quantum technology and investments from the disruptive technologies innovation fund. Together these programmes will prepare Ireland for the quantum revolution, providing us with a skilled workforce ready to apply breakthroughs in quantum computing to smart medical technology, telecommunications, climate change, and more. This is an important objective under Impact 2030 and we are delighted that it has been brought to fruition and will benefit so many.
I would also like to echo the Minister’s sentiments on our commitment to enhancing the research and innovation ecosystem and to achieving our ambition to become a global innovation leader through investing in research and innovation. The most recent and significant example of the importance and impact of research and innovation investment is the research and innovation ecosystem’s speedy innovations during the Covid-19 pandemic. These responses and innovations were based on decades of investment in basic research and talented people. This availability of talent is a key component of our national capability to handle and capitalise on major disruptions such as digitalisation and climate change. As such, pillar 4 of Impact 2030 aims to strengthen connectivity between research and innovation and the wider skills development agenda in Ireland. To do this, we will strengthen linkages between the research and innovation system and teaching and learning for all students, from undergraduate through to postgraduate research levels. We want to support all the students to achieve this goal and are providing for this through budget 2024.
The achievements we have seen in our Department in its short existence have been phenomenal, bringing science into every element of society either through supporting Science Week, investing in world-renowned research centres, or providing funding that brings science into people’s homes and schools. The role of science in society has expanded, as we face into the green and digital transitions.
The role of our Department will be to support research, innovation, skills development, education and co-operation across government, across the country and out into the wider worldwide scientific community to support our country in responding to our national challenges and in embracing opportunities. We are especially delighted that we have progressed with the task of joining CERN. I know this will be welcomed by many, including by all Members of the House. As humans, our activities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will help to shape the future of innovation, progress and the betterment of society. We know our society faces many challenges. Through research, science and innovation, we will be better equipped to face these challenges head on.
I encourage everyone to participate in Science Week. There will be 15 festivals and events throughout the country. The details of the events are available on the SFI website. Science is not just for people in white coats in laboratories. It is about exploring and discovering the world around you, being curious and asking questions. I encourage parents and teachers to get involved and to get their children involved. I ask young people to get involved. We never know from where the next amazing idea or brilliant discovery will come. I thank Members for their contributions.